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Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois speaks to supporters Monday in Montreal. She made history in the Quebec provincial election. ((Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press))

Less than two years removed from being reduced to the province's third party, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois has guided her troops back to Official Opposition status.

At the same time, she becomes the province's first female Opposition leader.

Although the result is not likely what the PQ had in its sights when Liberal Leader Jean Charest called the election on Nov. 5, Marois has rebuilt a venerable Quebec political institution.

A beaming Marois called area PQ candidates to join her onstage in Montreal on Monday night after the results of the day's provincial election were all but cinched, and she addressed a jubilant crowd chanting pro-sovereigntist slogans.

"The Parti Québécois is coming back from far and we must be able to admit this together," Marois said. "And we must always remember, even if we didn't get what we wanted tonight, the great dream that we have for Quebec is still alive and well. And we have a duty to keep hope."

The PQ has "found its energy again," Marois said. The PQ leader said she had already spoken with Charest on Monday night and committed her party's full co-operation amid uncertain economic times.

But she also boasted about the strength of her party's bigger caucus.

The PQ was leading or elected in 51 ridings early Tuesday morning, trailing the Liberals, who have a grip on 66 ridings. Marois's PQ surpassed the Action Démocratique du Québec's seven seats, returning the right-wing faction to the third-party status it held before the 2007 provincial campaign. Québec Solidaire picked up one seat, its first, in Mercier.

When the national assembly was dissolved, the PQ held 36 seats, behind 39 ADQ members, 48 Liberals and two vacancies.

Marois was easily re-elected in the Quebec City-area riding of Charlevoix.

She had been vying to be Canada's first female elected provincial premier since Prince Edward Island's Catherine Callbeck.

Marois was acclaimed to the PQ's helm in June 2007. When she took the party's leadership, she stressed that the PQ must support her firm resolve to move away from talk of a sovereignty referendum and focus on rekindling its social democratic roots.

Disastrous results

At the time, the PQ desperately needed to renew itself after disastrous results in the 2007 provincial election, when it sank to third place under former leader André Boisclair, bleeding support and seats to the ADQ.

Since she became leader, some of Marois's harshest critics have been fellow sovereigntists who jumped on her declarations about bilingualism and education.

A party member for more than three decades, Marois first worked as a press attaché for Jacques Parizeau when he was provincial finance minister in the 1970s.

She was elected to the legislature in 1981 in the riding of La Peltrie and appointed minister for the status of women by then premier René Lévesque.

Marois ran to replace Lévesque when he resigned as party leader in 1985 but lost to Pierre-Marc Johnson.

She was elected in the riding of Taillon, southeast of Montreal, in 1989 and eventually named to cabinet by then premier Parizeau in 1994.

Marois has held the education, health and finance portfolios under former premiers Lucien Bouchard, Parizeau and Bernard Landry. Her second bid for leadership, in 2005, pitted her against Boisclair, a young, upstart former cabinet minister. She resigned from the national assembly in 2006 after losing that battle, saying her heart wasn't in politics anymore.

In September 2008, she underwent emergency surgery for appendicitis.

Attempting to dispel worries about her health, Marois challenged a pack of journalists in November to a hike up Montreal's Mount Royal.